How do I say...?

One thing I believe is essential in speaking another language is knowing how to say please and thank you. Whenever I go to a new country (unless I don't know I'm going, like my sudden re-routing through Sweden), I make sure I know how to say both. I may not be able to say much more than that nor be able to say it well but I've found people generally appreciate it. And, damn it, I'm going to be polite.

  • please -- lūdzu
  • thank you -- paldies
  • thank you very much -- liels paldies
  • no thanks -- nē paldies [essential for scammers in city plazas]

There isn't an easy analogue for " you 're welcome" in Latvian, but generally you can use lūdzu in its place as well.

Another common usage of lūdzu: Don't be surprised to hear someone say, " Lūdzu! " when handing you something or wanting you to hand them something (think of the waiter when he clears your plates in a restaurant for this one).


The most common definition of the genitive case is that it shows possession. (The genitive case is used for other constructions, but this is the most common usage.)

In English , we have two options to show possession, either through the addition of an 's, s' or ', depending on the ending of the word, or to place an "of the" between the possessed and the possessor, respectively.

In Latvian , the possessor ( in the genitive case ) always precedes the possessed. All bets are off when it comes to poetry, however.

Unlike in Spanish, where genitive constructions can be literally translated in English as a "[thing] of [person]", Latvian constructs its genitive basically as English does - " [person's] [thing]".

The possessor will be in the genitive case while the object of possession will appear in the case required by the sentence's structure. This could be nominative or locative, for example.

Returning to our cat and mouse game, we get:

  • Kaķa pele. The cat 's mouse.
  • Peles kaķis. The mouse 's cat.

A Rose By Any Other Name...

You know what's challenging?

Looking up an author in Latvian to see if their book is available in a translated edition.

It's almost as bad as trying to transliterate Cyrillic to English. (On a semi- related tangent, this is what makes doing any kind of genealogy on my mother's family interesting. My great-grandparents were Ukrainian and when they came over to America, their last name was transliterated in various ways. A very common occurrence back then for immigrants.)

However, looking for an author in Latvian is difficult because names are changed to conform to Latvian spelling rules. For instance, my first name, Cori, doesn't conform to any singular nominative noun declension, so it gets changed. Since Latvians try to keep names as close as possible, my name would probably change to something like "Korija" so that it keeps all of the sounds.

I don't really like Korija, so I go by "Kora" in Latvia, as 1) I like it and 2) it's the original Greek version that my name is derived from. (Just like in America, when meeting new people over there, I just introduce myself as Kora. If we move back to Latvia, I will have to apply to the Language Board for an official ruling on my name and I'm not sure how much input I get.)

Here's some changed author names that I've come across.

  • Dž. K. Roulinga (J. K. Rowling)
  • Nīls Geimens (Neil Gaiman)
  • Duglass Prestons (Douglas Preston)
  • Linkolns Čailds (Lincoln Child)
  • Stefanija Meire (Stephenie Meyer)
  • Pīters S. Bīgls (Peter S. Beagle)
  • Dž. R. R. Tolkīns (J.R.R. Tolkein)
  • Dženifera Krūzija (Jennifer Crusie)
  • Čaks Palanjuks (Chuck Palahniuk)


The infinitive of every non-reflexive Latvian verb ends in -t.

The infinitive of every reflexive Latvian verb ends in -ties.

So you could also say that to make a verb 's infinitive form reflexive, you just add -ies to the infinitive.

What is an infinitive?

One of my professors liked to say that the infinitive form is the " dictionary form " because it is the form you would look up in the dictionary when translating into English.

It is the basic form of the verb used to construct all of the other verbal forms and is translated with " to " prepended when being used as a " full infinitive."

You can read a lot more about infinitives at Wikipedia, but technical grammar is not my strong point so I'm going to stop here. When you translate into English, you'll pretty automatically know whether or not to leave the "to" on or off because it will either make sense and sound right or it won't.


  • būt : to be
  • domāt : to think
  • mācīt : to teach
  • lasīt : to read

Answering Questions

Latvian is fun when it comes to questions.

There are lots of different question words and it seems like almost all of them start with a K. (They don't all though. There's vai and cik , for example.)

If you think that's weird, look at English - lots of ours start with Wh. Same concept and execution as our " Who? What? When? Where? Why?"

Some of them, notably the ones that correspond to the different forms, expect an answer in a certain form. For example, kas and ko both translate to what/who in English, but with an important difference: kas expects a nominative answer and ko expects an accusative answer.

Nominative generally means the subject of a sentence. Accusative means the direct object of the sentence. A direct object is something that is acted upon by the verb. More on this later.

The most common question words are:

Kas? -- What? Who? -- Asks about the subject

Kā? -- Whose? Of whose?

Kam? -- To whom / what / which? For whom / what / which?

Ko? -- What? Who? -- Asks about the direct object

Ar ko? -- With what? With whom?

Kur? -- Where?

Kāpēc? -- Why?

Kad? -- When?

So, for example, I could ask: " Kur ir pele?" [Where is the mouse?] Because kur is asked for the locative form, I would answer in the locative: " Kaķī." [In the cat.]

Endings give so much information - just one word, kaķī, gives me three in English when translating. Don 't be afraid to speak simply, you're more likely to be correct.

But if you answered: "Kaķis." it would make no sense at all! You would be answering along the lines of "the cat" and forgetting all about the important part of the question: WHERE is the mouse? The Latvian you're speaking to would be waiting patiently for you to get around to finishing your sentence, perhaps with a tale of a daring and adventurous mouse escaping the cat.

Interrogating Nouns

What’s really difficult for me is figuring out how to ask questions of words.

My husband just does it and I blink at him. It is so completely foreign to me as an English speaker.

Here’s what I mean. The way he was taught in school to figure out what form a noun is in is to ask questions of the noun. The word will answer the appropriate question for the form it is in.

So, let’s take kaķis , a cat. The dative of kaķis is kaķim , which roughly corresponds to: to/for a cat.

Let’s say you’ve never encountered this word before. (As a beginner, this happens a lot.) How do you figure out which form it is in?

As an English speaker, I look at the ending, it is -im , then look at / remember the chart of endings for nouns, hmm, -im can only be 1st person dative.

My husband, on the other hand, when attempting to explain to me how to ask questions of words, would look at the noun and say, “Kas? Kaķis. Kā? Kaķa. Kam? Kaķim. “ He is looking for the question that makes sense when kaķim is the answer. The question: To/For which/what/whom? makes sense when answered with to/for a cat. The other two questions mean “What? Who?” and “Of whose?” …and you can see those don’t make sense to be answered that way.

Each of the six major forms of nouns has an associated question word. Vocative, the seventh form, does not have an associated question word.

Why is this so important to understand? It is necessary because all sentence analysis is based on using this method of asking questions, which can get quite complicated. It is also important because the question words themselves are an integral part of the language - asking a question helps you figure out what’s going on in the sentence.

How does this work? Let’s take a look.

For these next few examples, pele (mouse) is in the nominative form. It is the subject of our imaginary sentence. Watch how questions and endings give context and meaning, even without more specifics. For each form of kaķis, we’ll ask the associated question to see what’s going on between the cat and mouse.

  • Kaķa pele —- Kā pele? Kaķa. — Whose mouse? The cat’s.
  • Kaķim pele —- Kam pele? Kaķim. — Who is the mouse for? The cat.
  • Kaķī pele —- Kur pele? Kaķī. — Where is the mouse? Inside the cat.

Because every noun has more associated information due to its ending than just its definition, we can learn that by asking questions about it to see how it answers.

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kaķis : cat
pele : mouse

Spelling Dictionaries

A very handy item to have is a Latvian spelling dictionary. It gives most forms for most verbs (mine has an odd blind spot of skipping reflexive verbs), nouns and other parts of speech. When you’re just starting to learn verbs, there’s no better way to determine the conjugation, since the majority require knowing both past and present.

My spelling dictionary, called Latviešu valodas pareizrakstības vārdnīca skolām, is published by Jumava and available online from Jānis Roze (

[I love Jānis Roze. They’re fantastic and will ship to the US cheaply and efficiently. Also, their stores are wonderful.]

Latvian Conjugations

Latvian has three conjugations for verbs: Short , Long and Mixed. They can also be referred to as the 1st, 2nd and 3rd conjugations, respectively, but that nomenclature isn’t always consistent.

To determine whether a verb fits into the short, long or mixed conjugation, apply the following rules:

  1. If the infinitive form has one syllable , it is a short conjugation verb.
  2. If the infinitive form has more than one syllable and the first person present form is identical to the first person simple past form, it is a long conjugation verb.
  3. If the infinitive has more than one syllable and the first person present is different from the first person simple past form, it is a mixed conjugation verb.

However, you also have to remember that prefixes , such as ap, at, pie , etc., do not count as syllables. So, pienākt is a short conjugation verb because it is nākt plus a prefix.

Even though reflexive verbs add an - ies to the end of the infinitive, they still follow the rules. You can drop the -ies to help you determine whether the infinitive is one syllable (ceļties -> ceļt) and look at the first person present and past forms. If they are the same, the verb belongs to the long conjugation.